By Pamela Eapen:
As a South African with Indian-born parents, I’ve been privileged to be a part of two entirely different cultures and environments growing up. Consequently, I’ve come to realise that there are some similarities that people can’t escape no matter how different their backgrounds – the need to survive, the drive to succeed. On the other hand, the differences between cultures are based more on societal constructs like education, politics and bureaucracy.
My family is from Kerala, a predominantly Malayalam-speaking state in southern India. I’ve visited a few times – enough to note the similarities. Kerala has been best known in the past for its excellent literacy rates – at 93.9%, it had the highest literacy rate in India, according to the 2011 census. Literacy doesn’t only mean people can read – it means they have access to newspapers and books, to in-depth knowledge of current affairs and a broad range of perspective. Keralites thus have the ability to make informed decisions about anything from their education to their government.
South Africa, on the other hand, has an awfully lopsided education system. On the one hand, we have “former Model C” schools (government schools funded mostly by parents of students, a governing body, and alumni) and private schools. Education at these schools is excellent – many of these students compete at national and international levels in academic and sports-related fields. These are generally the kids that go on to study in top universities and work as professionals, both inside and outside South Africa.
On the other hand, we have the public schools that are funded purely by the government. The students here suffer from a glaring lack of qualified teachers, the absence of necessary equipment, and the crippling knowledge that once they finish school, their grades won’t get them into tertiary level education. Students fail or drop out of high school at abysmal rates every year, which has contributed severely to the current unemployment crisis.
Of course, the government’s solution to this is a glorious celebration of their own ineptitude – instead of sending funding to the necessary places to better academic performance, they’ve lowered the Matric (12th grade) pass rate to 30%. Thirty percent. Your pilot doesn’t know 70% of the controls, but you’re telling them they can fly the plane? (And then people are surprised at the unemployment and crime rate.)
South Africa’s education system notwithstanding, the country has its good points too. It has become an extremely diverse and liberal nation since the end of Apartheid – we’ve seen the integration of people of different races, cultures, classes and sexual orientations; and the legalisation thereof. Kerala, on the other hand, is still terribly backward with regards to its “tolerance and acceptance” policies. Many Keralites I’ve encountered, both living in India and otherwise, are still of the mind that men and women shouldn’t “mix“, that gay people are abominations; and that “one girl misbehaving is everybody’s problem“, but that “boys will be boys“. It is a state where we’ve come to accept that public nuisances to women in the guises of flashers, eve-teasers and misogynists are an innate part of our culture.
It’s kind of saddening to know that there are such gaping flaws on both ends of my cultural perspective. But it’s also somewhat relieving to see that one succeeds where the other doesn’t. People, society, governments – they might not get everything right at once, but they are certainly capable of getting one thing right at a time. Hopefully, they’ll be able to look around them and learn by example. And I, as well as my fellow cross-culture specimens, will do the best we can to bridge the gap and bring those successes closer together.